Is Player Usage Costing Jackets a Playoff Series?

Most of the focus in analyzing the playoff performance seems to focus on Sergei Bobrovsky.  This is understandable given Bobrovsky’s history of giving up three or more goals in playoff games, but it ignores another reason that the Jackets may be struggling against the Capitals as their series has progressed and that is player usage.

The Jackets played 82 games prior to the playoffs and that data tells us a lot about which players were making positive contributions to the team and which players weren’t.  Yet, John Tortorella’s player usage in this series suggests that some old school thoughts about playoff hockey may be leading to the Jackets deploying players in a sub-optimal manner.  In a series defined by close games and, more importantly, overtime games, choices in player deployment can be the difference between being up 3-2 and being down 3-2.

Let’s take the case of Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Bjorkstrand finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% of 51.64 percent and was fifth on the team with 40 points.  Furthermore, Bjorkstrand had become a very solid player at both ends at the ice, something that Tortorella had him focused on at the start of the season.  Yet, through five games of this series, the only players with less time-on-ice than Bjorkstrand were Alexander Wennberg (who has only played in two games due to injury), Mark Letestu, and Sonny Milano (a healthy scratch for Game 5).  After scoring a goal in Game 5, Torts finally started playing Bjorkstrand more in the rest of the game and the result was a number of solid shifts where the puck was held in the Caps zone–something the Jackets have struggled with in this series. Bjorkstrand’s line had two of the best opportunities in the overtime period of Game 5.

One of the players getting less ice time than Bjorkstrand is Milano, who was a healthy scratch for Game 5, but played little to no minutes in the prior four games.  Like Bjorkstrand, Milano had a positive 5-on-5 CF% of 50.91 percent.  He put up 14 goals in only 55 games and his return to the lineup was one of the things that helped the Jackets down the stretch.  In fact, Milano was paired with Bjorkstrand on a line centered by Nick Foligno that provided a scoring threat when the top line wasn’t on the ice during a part of March.  That line was scuttled by Foligno’s injury.

So, who has been getting ice time over Milano and Bjorkstrand?  Thomas Vanek, for one.  While Vanek had positive possession numbers in 19 games for the Jackets, his possession numbers in Vancouver were less than stellar with a 45.01 percent 5-on-5 CF%. Seven goals and eight assists in 19 games was also probably not a sustainable pace for the 34 year-old Vanek.

You have to wonder how much of the decision to play Vanek more than Bjorkstrand and Milano comes down to an antiquated view of “playoff hockey.”  Neither Milano nor Bjorkstrand are known for a gritty or grinding style.  They aren’t veterans.  And, while Bjorkstrand is solid in his own end, Milano is still a work-in-progress in this respect.  However, none of this changes the fact that the team is better off with them in the lineup and playing.  The fact is that Milano is a dangerous player in both good ways and bad and the good still outweighs the bad based on what the advanced stats tell us.  Given Vanek’s own unforced-errors in Game 4, it hardly seems like playing him more has solved anything and it has, arguably, taken a more skilled player off the ice and certainly taken a quicker skater off the ice.

With Wennberg back in the lineup, one of Brandon Dubinsky or Letestu should be out of the lineup to make room for Milano.  The sole reason this apparently hasn’t happened would seem to be face-offs.  Wennberg is clearly being sheltered from this part of his duties, while Boone Jenner is actually being put in for spot face-off duty.

I’m not sure this is good enough justification to keep them both in.  Jenner has been strong enough in the face-off dot, as has Foligno.  Letestu been so-so this series and Dubinsky has been strong, though Dubinsky has taken three penalties while Letestu has taken none.  Flip a coin, but one of these two should sit instead of dividing minutes and taking a roster spot that could be held by a better player.  If you want to see how smart coaches can make dumb decisions about players based on overemphasizing face-offs, take a look at Jay Beagle‘s possession stats sometime.  Woof.

That’s another thing, here.  The Caps have dog crap for depth.  They had six forwards who played regularly who finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% above 50 percent.  One of them–Burakovsky–is out for the series.  How many regular forwards did Columbus have above that mark?  Eight, all of whom who are available to play in this series.  That means the Jackets are one line deeper than Washington.  Josh Anderson is playing bottom-six minutes for the Jackets.  I’ve got no problem with that as long as (1) the right people are getting more minutes than him and (2) the Jackets more evenly divide the minutes.

Why should the minutes be divided more evenly?  Because the Caps have dog crap for depth AND these games are going into overtime.  The Jackets should be taking more advantage of their depth by spreading minutes more evenly.  Keep the legs fresh.  This isn’t the old days.  Penalties are called regularly in the playoffs now and the old grind and hold game doesn’t work.  The team with fresh legs is best prepared to capitalize on mistakes in overtime.  You look at the last shift yesterday and the Jackets’ top line was gassed and the Caps took advantage on the cycle.  Divide minutes more evenly and the story might end differently.  The Jackets can afford to do it because the skill difference between their third and second lines isn’t as pronounced as it is for Washington.

If the Jackets want to take it to Washington tomorrow, John Tortorella needs to face his fears and embrace the fact that speed and skill is what wins games in hockey in 2018, even in the playoffs.  Yes, Milano will make mistakes, but so have the guys who have played in place of him.  Show faith in your young players.  They are the future of this team and they didn’t let you down for the 82 games that preceded this series.  Don’t abandon them now because of fear, embrace them as your hope.  Depth is your advantage, press your advantage.  Divide playing time more equally not just because you expect these games to go to overtime, but because it is to your advantage even over 60 minutes of hockey.  Torts needs to think about his own motto in a new way.  When it comes to coaching playoff games in 2018, Safe Is Death.